Record numbers seek financial aid from private schools

Posted November 18, 2009 3:16 p.m. EST

For local parents, the tight economy is taking a bite out of money for private school tuition fees, forcing record numbers to apply for financial aid at area schools for the 2009-10 academic year.

From private church-affiliated schools to independent college-prep day and boarding schools, parents are seeking help to pay the bills to keep their children enrolled. Applications for financial aid more than tripled at some local schools, while others offered special recession grants.

“We saw more financial aid applications than we have ever seen before,” says Michael Fedewa, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh. “Typically, the diocese receives between 500 and 600 applications. This year, we got more than 1,400.”

Inquiries for need-based financial aid increased at other private and independent schools across the Triangle and in the region, according to school officials. At Ravenscroft School, an independent pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school in north Raleigh, inquiries increased more than 25 percent from the previous school year, according to Pamela Jamison, director of admissions.

“One of the changes we have seen, unfortunately, is the phase-out of some of the special pre-collegiate loan programs,” Jamison says. “On the other hand, individual schools have taken different approaches based on their specific circumstances. Some have allocated special emergency funding to supplement their existing financial budgets in an effort to support additional families and students.”

At Montessori Community School in Durham, financial aid is spread among many families, says Dave Carman, the head of school.

"I have never seen more anxiety among parents about paying tuition,” he says. “Today, parents just don’t know what will happen to their jobs down the road.”

Schools are offering options to offset economic pressures. Saint Mary’s School offered a one-year recession grant program for existing parents to help with tuition, in addition to the standard financial aid, says Katherine Leary, director of admissions for the all-girls day and boarding school.

Eleven families took advantage of this program.

“We saw a surge in financial aid applications and wanted to do something special to help the parents of our existing students,” Leary says. “Our primary concern is working hard to keep our existing students here.”

Virginia Episcopal School (VES), a co-ed day and boarding school in Lynchburg, Va., saw about a 20 percent increase in inquiries about financial aid this year, says Pam Barile, director of financial aid at the school.

Different from other schools, VES added some merit requirements to its financial aid program, Barile says. In addition to financial need, students’ grades and extracurricular activities also were considered.

“This past year has been difficult for everyone in the financial aid business at private and independent schools,” she says. “We all are working to distribute the money in the most efficient manner for our students and our schools.”

Many schools offer payment plans to help spread out tuition costs. These plans include a variety of options, such as full payment in August, 60 percent payment in August and 40 percent in December or monthly payment plans. The monthly payment option is the most commonly used, school officials agree.

The most common form of tuition assistance is need-based financial aid. Generally, this is tuition assistance given to families who demonstrate financial need, which is defined as the difference between a student’s educational expenses and the family’s financial resources or ability to pay.

Typically, financial aid is in the form of a grant that doesn't require repayment and is designed to cover tuition charges only. Funding for these grants comes directly from the school’s budget. Many large private schools have special financial aid endowments, while others tap into the school’s operating budget for financial aid allocations.

Similar to college financial aid programs, parents at many Triangle private schools complete and submit financial aid applications to national services rather than directly to the local schools. This helps protect the privacy of parents seeking financial assistance.

Some area schools have small financial aid committees that review and make the final grant decisions. Others leave the decision to the head of the school.

Parents seeking information about need-based financial aid should contact their school’s admissions office. Schools also host information sessions where parents can ask questions about financial aid, admissions and all areas of school life.

Schools’ Web sites often have detailed information on the financial aid process as well. Parents can research current fees and loan rates to determine whether a loan is a viable option.

“The admissions office and business office have trained staff members who are knowledgeable in all areas of financial aid,” Jamison says. “We work and counsel with individual families on the financial aid application process from inquiry to enrollment.”

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